Yet again, a new phase of the pandemic in the UK. First there was the prodrome of general awareness of a new virus in China, with the uncertainties, and false re-assurances, evaporating away to leave the reality of the first wave. Deaths. Lockdowns. New uncertainties. How does it spread? Should I wash my shopping? Should we wear masks? The answer to the latter I found was no — I was refused access to a blood donation centre because I declined to take my mask off.
Cases fell, and second phase arrived. A summer of ‘eat out, help out’ commenced, when you could nervously try the new normal. I watched Tenet in two masks — they were required in the newly opened cinemas. I ate breakfast in a hotel with ineffective plastic screens between tables. It felt like the eye of a storm passing, and, to some, the storm receding. It hadn’t.
Phase 3. A gradual worsening, some due to our prior help at eating out, the arrival of Delta, and the shaft of light of vaccines. A battle between vaccination and the virus, with many deaths. A cold, dark lockdown. Then a summer of confidence courtesy of science. The fourth phase has been an uneasy accommodation with SARS-COV-2, with high cases, and lower deaths. The virus is not yet endemic, but arguments are. Worse case predictions, post freedom day, were thankfully wrong.
Now we have the fifth phase. A new variant (Omicron) has arrived, sufficiently different to Delta to raise concerns about possible reduced effectiveness of the vaccines, with a potentially far higher level of transmission. Cases in South Africa have rapidly increased, and UK cases appear to be rising (134 today). There is not enough data to make any strong claims about whether it is mild or severe.
This time it is a race between boosters and a possible Omicron wave of unknown potential to cause harm. The UK target is to give 25 million doses before the end of January, to raise the wall of vaccine-induced immunity to minimise the potential harms from this round of uncertainties. Liz Breen and I have an article assessing if this target can be met at The Conversation. We are optimistic on that front.
The key ingredients for a successful booster programme have thus been promised – vaccine stock, vaccination sites and staff resources. If they can be made available in a timely fashion, then replicating the vaccination drive of the first half of 2021 is possible – as is meeting the government’s January target. Encouragingly, vaccination rates were already improving before these changes
Everything else is up in the air, and the gradual clarity on Omicron over the next few weeks will tell us whether this phase is an easy or a hard one. Until then, this comment from a Bloomberg article — that has been shared widely as evidence Omicron is mild — is probably a good default position to hold.
“The only ones putting their hand on their hearts and telling the world don’t worry, this is going to be mild, haven’t learned enough humility yet in the face of this virus.”
Photo from Fusion Medical Animation
I recently appeared on the Uppsala Monitoring Centre podcast Drug Safety Matters on the subject of talking about vaccine safety.
With vaccine hesitancy on the rise and misinformation spreading like wildfire on social media, drug safety specialists may have a hard time knowing how to talk about side effects without affecting people’s trust in vaccinations. Anthony Cox from the University of Birmingham and Daniel Salmon from the Institute for Vaccine Safety share their best advice for balanced and responsible vaccine safety communication.
Tune in to find out:
- Why we can’t allow bad actors to damage the drive for openness in research and data
- Why we should be open about uncertainty and always frame risks in the context of benefits
- How to prevent public health advocacy from biasing the science of vaccine safety
Photo from CDC
Just a short post linking to an article about communicating vaccine safety, which I contributed to, at Uppsala Reports. Here is an excerpt.
We can’t allow bad actors to damage the drive for openness in research and data,” Cox says. Science is about finding the closest approximation to the truth, he explains, and it is essential that we have open discussions about what that is. Trying to control, hide, or bias the truth will only generate distrust in authorities.
Dr Daniel Salmon, director of the Institute for Vaccine Safety at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health in the US, agrees that the risks and benefits of vaccines must be discussed with honesty and objectivity.
“Vaccines are such an impactful medical and public health intervention, and we have to be careful not to fall into the trap of overselling their value or underselling their risks,” he explains. “If we overstate the benefits, we run the risk of losing people’s trust in the science and system.”
Blood clot fears: how misapplication of the precautionary principle may undermine public trust in vaccines.
The arrival of effective vaccines against COVID-19 has been one of the few good news stories of the pandemic. However, communicating the safety of vaccines has long been difficult, as shown by most countries having some level of vaccine hesitancy, including hesitancy towards COVID-19 vaccines specifically.
Just as regulatory authorities – such as the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) – had systems in place to assess if the vaccines worked, so too did they create carefully thought through vaccine safety plans to deal with any safety signals arising after the vaccines’ deployment.
However, this week the EU’s plan for vaccine safety was thrown into confusion. At least 12 EU states have suspended use of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine because of concerns of a possible link between the vaccine and blood clots. These concerns are registered in spontaneous reports, where a patient or healthcare professional suspects a link between an adverse event they’ve witnessed and the vaccine. Reporters do not have to be sure of a link, and these reports do not prove there’s any association between the vaccine and the event.
The number of blood clots reported among people taking the vaccine, assuming even a fairly high level of under-reporting, does not seem to be higher than would be expected in the general population. Many things happen after vaccination that would have happened without the vaccine.
That said, in some countries, such as Norway and Germany, an extremely rare form of blood clot in the brain called cerebral venous sinus thrombosis (CVST) has been reported. Incidence of CVST in the normal population is hard to measure, although Johns Hopkins Medicine has said it may affect around one in every 200,000 people each year. In Germany, the incidence of CVST post vaccination has exceeded this rate, so the EMA is carefully examining each case to look for possible contributing factors.
But so far, the World Health Organization, EMA, MHRA and AstraZeneca have all said that there is no evidence of a causal link between the vaccine and clots, and the EMA has said it is firmly convinced that the benefits of the vaccine far outweigh the risks. Yet if this is the case, why have the advisory committees of some EU states decided to suspend the vaccine?
A good tool badly used
A major reason appears to be the misapplication of the precautionary principle. This is where you take anticipatory action to avoid potential harm, even when the evidence around that harm is uncertain. It can be a useful tool when needing to make a decision in a situation that includes risk and uncertainty.
The precautionary principle evolved from critiques of risk assessments that were based on scientific methods. These, it was argued, were too conservative, requiring too much evidence to prove risk, and so perhaps biased towards seeing an absence of harms.
The earliest forms of the principle are thought to have arisen in West Germany in the 1970s, where “Vorsorgeprinzip” was used in environmental policy to limit actions that were suspected but not proven to cause ecological damage. Past case studies of harms for which there were early warnings but only later actual evidence – such as asbestos – show the sorts of outcomes that the principle can potentially help avoid.
Regarding pausing the AstraZeneca vaccine, the principle has been cited explicitly by some EU states. Others have invoked it implicitly in interviews, saying they will “err on the side of caution”. However, there are trade-offs – and that’s the primary reason why we can say the principle has been misapplied.
COVID-19 vaccines are being used to prevent deaths. Decisions to suspend their use will slow vaccination campaigns by reducing vaccine availability. Suspensions might also affect vaccine uptake by sparking wider concerns about safety among the public. Confidence in the AstraZeneca vaccine is already relatively low in Europe, with high-profile comments about its effectiveness having dented uptake.
So rather than avoiding risk, the principle has instead moved countries away from one risk (blood clots) towards another (lower vaccine coverage). The impact of the latter could be much larger.
Even if this weren’t the case, the principle has still, arguably, been misapplied. Plans for COVID-19 vaccine safety monitoring until now have been based around rigorous scientific evaluation of safety signals, careful communications to ensure vaccine hesitancy is not increased, and ensuring that signals are investigated to examine if any risk requires regulatory action.
Because potential safety signals arise often in vaccine and drug safety, with many being false signals, the precautionary principle doesn’t fit with such plans. It is too sensitive, and in the case of COVID-19 vaccines, doesn’t initiate any safety assessments that aren’t already happening.
As we have seen this week, misapplication of the precautionary principle leads to erratic decision making that fails to do the very thing it intends to: lower risk. The decisions made could potentially have long-term health effects both in the EU and globally. As a result, one might say we need to be more cautious about the application of the precautionary principle.
Post publication note
This article was first published at The Conversation on March 16th 2021. Since it was published the information about the risks associated with the AstraZeneca vaccine have become clearer, although the central argument of this piece still stands.
A few years ago I set up a small group teaching session for pharmacy students based around a fatal adverse drug reaction, using a video developed by the World Health Organisation. This year it is an inter-professional education event run by pharmacy and nursing academics. Sadly it will be taking place over Zoom, rather in the building you can see above, but that has made timetabling an inter-professional event easier than normal.
In the past I have used the event to discuss both technical and communication issues that led to the patient’s death, and for the impact the video has on first year students to raise the issues of harm in clinical practice. While revising the preparatory material, I decided to make it less technically focused, and more focused on the impact of the event and team communications. I’ve also given some limited pre-reading to enable a better understanding of the video dramatisation they are going to watch. It’s written in a less academic style than I normally use, based more around story telling. Here is the text I wrote for the teaching session, just in case it is of interest to people. For those who want an in-depth look at the case involved, you can read the Toft Report here in PDF format.
Just an Ordinary Day
Every day thousands of healthcare professionals go to work.
To earn a living. To make a difference. To help people.
And every day healthcare professionals are involved in incidents that lead to patient harm, and in some cases deaths.
With very rare exceptions, none of them went to work to do this.
Here is a story.
In the 1960s, a team of scientists at Eli Lilly in the US investigated a naturally occurring chemical from the rosy periwinkle plant. The chemical was called vincristine, and they tried to use it to treat diabetes.
A press photo circa 1961 showing some members of Eli Lilly’s vincristine research team By Crossgates - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0.
It didn’t work.
But it did cause myelosuppression (suppression of the bone marrow’s ability to produce blood cells).
They tested it in leukaemia.
Vincristine became a key drug in many cancer regimes. Its use in leukaemia and lymphoma has saved many lives.
Fast forward to 2001
A 18 year old boy in Nottingham had successfully been treated for lymphoblastic leukaemia. He was in remission, and in the maintenance phase of his chemotherapy. This consisted of intravenous vincristine and intrathecal (into the spinal fluid) cytosine every three months.
Wayne Jowett had been under treatment for 2 years, but he was out of the other end. His treatment had given him a future.
But a terrible mistake would take all this from him.
On the 5th of January 2001 a doctor would inject vincristine into Wayne Jowett’s spine. The vincristine worked its way up his spine progressively paralysing him. He spent the rest of his life on paediatric intensive care, dying on the 2nd of February 2001.
The doctor was charged and convicted with manslaughter, but there were multiple failings at the hospital that led to this incident. This was not the mistake of one person.
Mistakes are rarely caused by the solely by the actions of one person. Systems of work, the way we communicate with each other, the design of equipment we use can all conspire to put those at the point of care in unsafe positions which can can harm those we seek to care for.
Like Wayne Jowett.
This session will use a World Health Organisation dramatised case similar to that of Wayne Jowett to highlight how such errors can occur. Together you will explore how the event happened, and how things could be improved to avoid such events in future. The specifics of the drugs matter less, than how the mistake arose.
What you need to do
During the session you will watch a video of the dramatised event. You can use this document to help you analyse the events (read it before the session). Use a scrap of paper to jot things down to avoid using your computer.
You will then work as a mixed group of nursing and pharmacy students to look at the event, to find all the contributory factors that led to this event, and to look at the team working between the various professionals in dramatisation. This is a great opportunity to see different perspectives on each others professions as depicted in the video, and to learn from each other.
In order to protect each other, yourselves, and your patients from future errors.
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